KAPOLEI, Hawaii (AP) — Defending his efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear threat, President Barack Obama said Sunday that the economic sanctions against the country have had "enormous bite," and that he is united with Russian and Chinese leaders in ensuring Iran does not develop an atomic weapon and unleash an arms race across the Middle East.
The president, at a news conference that closed an Asia-Pacific economic summit, did not specifically say he would consider military action if Tehran were to persist in arming itself with a nuclear weapon. But he added: "We are not taking any options off the table. Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region but also to the United States."
Obama's stand came laced with presidential politics. Republican presidential contenders, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have assailed Obama for not doing more to keep Iran from getting nuclear weaponry. Said Obama: "Is this an easy issue? No. Anyone who claims it is is either politicking or doesn't know what they're talking about."
The sun setting over the ocean behind him in Hawaii, Obama fielded questions across domestic and foreign fronts. He prodded China on its economic policy, pledged to keep fighting Republicans over his largely stalled jobs bill, reflected on the hurt of the Penn State sex abuse scandal and challenged a key congressional debt panel without dropping any veto threats.
Obama is in the midst of a nine-day trip far from Washington, first to host the yearly Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, then on to Australia and Indonesia. Surrounded by tropical paradise, he said he and the leaders of 20 others nations spanning the Pacific Rim were "here for business. We're here to create jobs."
For the president, the news conference was his first opportunity to address a report Friday from the International Atomic Energy Agency that provided new evidence that Iran's nuclear program includes clandestine efforts to build a bomb.
The report alleges Iran has been working to acquire equipment and weapons design information, testing high explosives and detonators and developing compute models of a warhead's core. It is the most unequivocal evidence yet that the Iranian program ranges far beyond enriching uranium for use in energy and medical research, as Iran insists.
In meetings Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama sought to rally support for putting new pressure on Iran's regime. But there was little public sign either country was ready to drop its opposition to additional sanctions through the United Nations.
Obama insisted the countries are working on the next steps.
"All three of us entirely agree on the objective which is making sure that Iran does not weaponize nuclear power and we do not trigger a nuclear arms race in the region," Obama said. "That's in the interest of all of us. We will be consulting with them carefully over the next several weeks to look at what other options we have available to us."
The U.S. has already slapped sanctions on dozens of Iranian government agencies, financial and shipping companies as well as officials over the nuclear program and could target additional institutions like Iran's Central Bank. And the U.N. has imposed four rounds of sanctions that have caused economic hardship in Iran.
"The sanctions have enormous bite and enormous scope," Obama said.
Pressed on criticisms from the Republican presidential candidates, Obama said he would hold his own fire until the opposition party settles on a person to challenge him.
But he rejected assertions from GOP candidates such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann that they would be willing to use the interrogation practice known as waterboarding, a simulated form of drowning, on suspected terrorists.
"Let me just say this: they're wrong," Obama said emphatically. "Waterboarding is torture, it's contrary to America's traditions, it's contrary to our ideals, that's not who we are, that's not how we operate. We don't need it ... and we did the right thing by ending that practice."
The president challenged China to let its currency appreciate more rapidly and to end measures that take unfair advantage of foreign intellectual property. He spoke of China as an ally whose growth is in the interest of the world, but also as a competitor that needs to assume more maturity on the world stage and play by fair rules.
"The United States and other countries feel that enough is enough," he said.
On the deficit talks in Congress, Obama urged lawmakers to reach consensus, complaining that they were continuing to stick with "rigid positions" rather than solving the problem.
A committee in charge of cutting the deficit has until Nov. 23 to agree on how to reduce it by at least $1.2 trillion in the next decade. Any amount less than that would be made up in automatic across-the-board cuts divided evenly between defense and domestic programs.
Obama refused to say whether he would veto any effort to bypass the deep cuts in defense and other spending that would take effect if there is no deal forthcoming from Congress.
He said he hopes lawmakers will "bite the bullet and do what needs to be done,' but voiced frustration with what he said was a desire by some members of Congress to "want to keep jiggering the math" to get a different outcome.
The president rejected a suggestion that he might end up with almost nothing to show from Congress on his jobs bill, saying he'd keep working to get it done even if it took past next year's election.
Obama sidestepped a question about his conversation more than a week ago with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the G20 summit, in which reporters overheard Sarkozy calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar," and Obama replying "I have to work with him every day." Obama wouldn't comment on the language — but did say he voiced "significant disappointment" to Sarkozy about France's vote to admit Palestine as a member of the U.N. cultural organization. After the vote, the U.S. cut its funding for UNESCO.
Obama said the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State has an important message for institutions far beyond college sports: that protecting children is more important than shielding institutions. He called the case, which ended the career of longtime head coach Joe Paterno, "heartbreaking."
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